“At the end of the 1970s,” writes Frits Gierstberg, “[photojournalism] was attacked at a level of theory and content due to the posture of being an ‘authority’ adopted by the post-war ‘author-photographers’ with their dominant style of ‘the decisive moment’. Depardon’s break with this approach – he turned his back on the notions both of current news and of the decisive moment – and his choice for a more subjective approach was his response to this crisis.”

Gierstberg’s is one of two essays introducing Raymond Depardon, Photographer and Filmmaker, an excellent catalogue celebrating the work to date of the prolific French documentarian. The catalogue, which along with two essays includes quotes from Depardon, examples of his work, a biography, and a bibliography, accompanied exhibitions by the Nederlands Filmmuseum, and Nederlands Fotomuseum in 2005.

In 1958, 16-year-old Raymond Depardon left his family farm for Paris after taking a photography correspondence course. By the time he was 20, he was covering the war in Algeria for the Dalmas photo agency; five years later he co-founded the legendary Gamma agency. When he joined Magnum in 1979 he had already begun his prolific output of films and photography books. He
is better known in recent years for films such as the feature La Captive du désert (1990) and documentaries Délits Flagrants (1994) and 10e Chambre – Instants d’audiences (2004). He has published more than 20 books, often on subjects on which he also made films but which are nonetheless autonomous works. His most recent film project, Profils Paysans: le quotidien (2005) returns to the situation of French farmers, as did his autobiographical book La Ferme de Garet (1995), which resulted from a commission by the French landscape development agency.

If Depardon turned away from the authority of the photojournalist-auteur and the decisive moment, what then did he turn towards? Nico de Klerk’s essay in the catalogue addresses the influence of American direct cinema on Depardon. In the 1960s, documentary filmmakers Robert Drew, DA Pennebaker, and the Maysles brothers developed techniques that allowed unobtrusive, continuous observation, from which truth – about politics, institutions, social life – would be revealed. Depardon shared this interest in the time between moments, the “temps faibles” or “uneventful moments” that, Gierstberg notes, lead to “banal, calm images that are yet full of emotion”.

Depardon turned towards everyday subjects rather than news, examining the relationship between citizens and civic institutions, methodically photographing urban landscapes, and exploring ordinary moments on the street not as revelations of authorial insight, but as a saturation of temps faibles.

This method contrasts with the decisive moment approach favoured by photojournalism, in which the photographer simultaneously recognises the significance of an event and realises that significance in the act of photography, satisfying, in an energetic moment, the eye, the heart and the mind. Depardon’s images are no less authored, but in their style, the author recedes; the moment is no less decisive, and the frame no less deliberate, but the photographer becomes less an auteur and more a point of intersection between himself, the subject, and the audience.

Where most photojournalists create a body of work over their lifetime that looks at the world, and which may, in its sum, be revealing of the author, Depardon creates a body of work that looks over his earlier projects. His films are in conversation with his books, his photographs with his films. The books are not collections of photographs so much as arguments in which photographs present evidence not of the world, but of Depardon’s ongoing effort to understand the documentary process.

Where documentary photographs are valourised for indexing events in the world in history, Depardon is equally interested in how the photograph indexes the photographer’s role and presence at the time of its making. He explores this role by drawing attention to the process of making, whether by creating a series of images in which every photograph must be vertical, with the horizon line dividing the image at the centre (Errance (2000)), or by combining commissioned images with personal souvenirs from his youth in La Ferme de Garet.

De Klerk discusses the impact of American direct cinema on Depardon’s career, but Depardon is clearly influenced by French cinema verité as well, in which the act of making a film can create a situation that reveals something interesting or true. Depardon’s later work is often systematic, shaped by conditions that he imposes in order to produce an unexpected and otherwise unrealisable provocation. But this is not a scientific experiment; it is a philosophical contemplation, orderly but also nostalgic, sometimes regretful, lonely, yet powerful in that it is the audience’s eye, heart, and mind that are invited to converge upon the photographer’s report, and in this sense it is a kind of collaboration, and a test of the aesthetic, intellectual, and emotional limits and possibilities of documentary practice.

Leo Hsu